Friday, January 23, 2009

The Abuse of our Unborn and the New Administration

Dear Parish Faithful,

Lost amidst the recent euphoria of Tuesday's inauguration ceremonies is the fact that another large crowd will gather today in Washington D. C. Certainly not a crowd as nearly as large and boisterous as Tuesday's, but a substantial gathering that will be notable for its more sober and serious tone. I am referring to the 36th March for Life demonstration that occurs annually in the capitol on the date of the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand in our country and which has claimed well over thirty million lives to date. There will be an Orthodox delegation present. In fact, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, will deliver the invocation at the annual Rose Dinner that will follow the march this evening.

Not to rain on anyone's parade; or take anything away from the historically impressive event of Tuesday's inauguration of President Barak Obama; or even simplistically reduce the new administration to one particular issue; but the new administration is openly "pro-abortion" regardless of the rhetoric of working to reduce unwanted pregnancies, and thus the need for abortions. This is simply common knowledge. I just read a lengthy article in which pro-abortion advocates are "elated" and expectant of new policy changes that will reverse some of the funding restrictions that have been put in place. Some predict that these will be among the first acts of the new administration. Pro-life advocates are steeling themselves for these very reversals and realize that the future is dim for those who oppose our nation's liberal abortion policies. In the foreseeable future, it appears to be a settled issue.

The bioethical issues have been solved in that the abortion movement inaugurated scientific research into the beginning of life that has clearly demonstrated that human life is a continuum that begins at "the moment of conception." That battle has been fought and won by the advocates of the sanctity of life. The abortion debate is no longer waged on that particular front. The issue remains one of "choice" and "rights," at least on the ideological level. Abortion advocates are claiming that a woman has a legal right to kill her own child in her womb if that is her decision, knowing full well that the "fetus" is a human being. That is the brutal truth behind the shrill cry for "reproductive rights." This is a legal "right" regardless of the circumstances and the "hard cases." And, in our way of thinking, what is "legal" is moral. In my opinion, what has happened slowly over time - some say from the Enlightenment to the present - is the triumph of the self-autonomous individual over life itself. In other words, the self "trumps" over the life of an unborn child. Or perhaps we could say that this means the triumph of the abstract idea of "rights" over the concrete reality of a human life.

Mother Teresa among others has stressed that the moral strength of a country is determined by how it treats its children - "children" here also including those still in the womb and awaiting the light of this world - its infirm and the elderly. (Euthanasia is the issue at the other pole of life). Where does that place America? Is God supposed to bless all of this when politicians casually repeat as a vapid mantra the formula still demanded of them - "God bless America?" How does that blessing "work" with the abuse of our unborn?

Fr. Steven

Webmaster's Note: For an ironic turn on the abortion issue, view this new video created by Life: Imagine the Possibilities.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the Death of an Infant

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, we served The Order for the Burial of an Infant over and on behalf of a two-day old boy, who died at Children's Hospital on Saturday.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing more heartbreaking than this: a tiny infant dressed in white baptismal clothes, lying in the middle of the church in a coffin that looks more like a small box, surrounded by his grieving family and friends. With an open casket, I was deeply struck by the innocence, purity and beauty of this "undefiled infant," as he was called in the funeral service. It was difficult not to keep returning to his coffin and looking at him. Here was an indelible image that will always remain with me. In addition, we witnessed his poor mother, still recovering from giving birth on Friday, together with a father who was momentarily elated with the birth of his firstborn son, joined together in mutual grief at their little son's burial service. The initial impact of death is that of irrevocable lost. This is why we sing so realistically, "I weep and wail when I think upon death ..."

We use a completely different funeral service for infants, basically meaning children under the age of seven. This was the first time I had ever served this particular funeral office in my years as a priest. I was struck by the beauty of the service, the certainty of an infant's entrance into the Kingdom of God, and the complete absence of prayers for the "forgiveness of sins" of the departed infant. There is no sin for which he needs to be forgiven - including so-called "original sin." The service explicitly states that "he has not transgressed Thy divine command" (Ode 6 of the Canon); and that "infants have done no evil" (Ode 9 of the Canon). Since transgressing the divine commandment is inevitable in a fallen world, we pray over a departed adult that God will forgive his/her sins. But for an infant, the service repeatedly refers to the departed infant as "undefiled," "uncorrupted," "most-pure," "truly blessed," and even "holy." This is not sentimentalism meant to make us feel better. It rather reveals a profound theological truth.

A child, according to Orthodox Christian teaching, is not born a "guilty sinner." A child is not baptized in order to wash away the stain of "original sin" with its attendant guilt. We believe that a child is born bearing the consequences of "original sin," often referred to as "ancestral sin" by Orthodox theologians precisely in order to distinguish it from “original sin.” The consequences of ancestral sin are corruption and death. A child is born into a fallen, broken, and corrupted world, grievously wounded by sin and death. There is nothing sentimental in that assessment of our "human condition"! Disease and physical deformities are a part of this world, caused by humankind's initial alienation from God - and providentially allowed by God. Thus a child is never too young to die. And hence the tragic nature of life, nowhere more clearly revealed than in the death of an innocent infant. An infant is baptized in order to be saved from the consequences of the ancestral sin that lead each and every person inevitably to sin and be subject to corruption and death. The child needs to be "born again of water and the Spirit" - the Mystery of Baptism - in order to "put on Christ" and the gift of immortality that is received only through sacramentally partaking of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The entire funeral service was permeated by the sure hope and conviction that this little child has been "translated unto Thee," and that he is now "a partaker of Thy Heavenly good things." (Ode 6 of the Canon). His death is treated realistically, and the pathos of an uncompleted earthly life is clearly acknowledged. Yet his death is his entrance to life with God in His eternal Kingdom:

By Thy righteous judgment, Thou hast cut down like a green herb before it has completely sprouted, the infant that Thou hast taken, O Lord. But, as Thou hast led him unto the divine mountain of eternal good things, do Thou plant him there, O Word.

The sword of death has come and cut thee off like a young branch, O blessed one that has not been tempted by worldly sweetness. But, lo, Christ openeth the heavenly gates unto Thee, joining Thee unto the elect, since He is deeply compassionate. (Ode 5 of the Canon)

O Most-perfect Word, Who didst reveal Thyself as perfect Infant: Thou hast taken unto Thyself an infant imperfect in growth. Give him rest with all the Righteous who have been well-pleasing unto Thee, O only Lover of mankind. (Ode 3 of the Canon)

The suffering hearts of the mother and father are not forgotten in the prayers of the service, expressed with a certain rhetorical style that may no longer be fashionable, but which retains a genuinely poignant realism:

No one is more pitiful than a mother, and no one is more wretched than a father, for their inward beings are troubled when they send forth their infants before them. Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children ... (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

This is further intensified in a hymn that seeks to articulate the words of the infant as if he could communicate with those left behind. Here we find a realistic acknowledgment of intense grief, suffused with a certain hope that God can bring relief to that very grief:

"O God, God, Who hast summoned me: Be Thou the consolation of my household now, for a great lamentation has befallen them. For all have fixed their gaze on me, having me as their only-begotten one. But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother, refresh the inward parts of my mother, and bedew the heart of my father with this: Alleluia." (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

These hymns and prayers are profoundly comforting, not primarily for psychological and emotional reasons, but because they reveal what is actually true: that Christ has overcome death, trampling it down on our behalf by His glorious Resurrection. Death itself has been transformed from within. Horror and darkness give way to hope and life. The healing grace of God does not come through pious, psychological or emotional sentiment, but through the awareness of this Truth as it penetrates our minds and hearts through the gift of faith. What other kind of "comfort" can there be when parents, relatives and friends must bear the cross of the death of a beloved infant? Grief and sorrow over such a loss never leave us, but they can be transmuted and transformed in time by the joy of knowing God's love, poured out to us through His beloved Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Fr. Steven

Monday, January 5, 2009

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The future remains unknown to us, but I hope and pray that everyone has a blessed New Year. I assume that the new year has already fallen into its regularity and rhythms on this Monday morning. No more "time off!" The inevitable theme that arises with the New Year is precisely that of time itself, especially the inexorable and irrepressible passage of time. Swept along on its current, where is time carrying us? The very nature of time is very difficult to grasp. Cosmically and geologically, we may measure time in terms of billions or millions of years. Historically, we measure time in terms of millenia or centuries. On a personal level, we measure time in terms of decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. That is called chronological time. But what of a more psychological or existential experience of time? Thus, the seemingly simple question, "What is time," can leave us groping for an answer that fails to come readily. In Book XI of his Confessions, Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430) left a famous passage in which he brilliantly describes our struggle with the very concept of time:

What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.

We speak of time in terms of tenses - past, present and future. But do the past and the future actually exist? When the present passes into the past does that past still exist? And what of the future, since it eventually becomes the present, only to pass into the past? And even the present, how does it exist since it is disappears the moment that it appears? All of a sudden, we have some real questions before us when we try and speak about time! And yet, as Augustine wrote, we all know what is meant by time when discussing it, though we cannot articulate what it is we actually know.

Moving to more practical considerations, I believe that we should acknowledge that time is our most precious "commodity." Time is life, because we live our lives within time. When, for us, there is no more time, then there is no more life. (I am referring to our earthly existence here. The relationship between time and eternity is briefly explored below). We speak of a dead person as no longer having any time. His time is up, so to speak! But if we live within time, and if time is therefore our most precious commodity, why do we often speak of "wasting time?" We must waste time while waiting for the slow "express line" at the supermarket to move along. Are we not then wasting our lives? And even worse, we often speak of "killing time!" We know this experience, because we have to "kill some time" waiting for the doctor to see us or between flights at an airport, to use but two common examples. Are we not then killing life? All of this is inevitable and unavoidable, but it does reflect something of the quotidian nature of our lives and of time itself.

Is it possible to fill up this precious time, rather than wasting or killing it? Instead of becoming impatient with the person in the express line who actually has thirteen items, instead of the maximum twelve, what if we filled that time up with prayer, as in the interior use of the Jesus Prayer? The same for driving, walking, etc. We can always thus "redeem the time" with some effort and discipline. (This has nothing to do with "keeping busy," which can become the greatest source of wasting and killing time imaginable. As I have written before, if we could actually be less busy, we could then begin to be good stewards of the time allotted to us).

God has placed us within the time of the created world. Time is God's gift to us. A Christian acknowledges that time leads us to our deaths, but it also leads us to eternity. In a work entitled "Eternity and Time: Oration for the New Year," Fr. Sergius Bulgakov beautifully expressed the Christian hope that time is not a meaningless movement toward a meaningless death:

The gates of the future are open before us, and through them we pass from time to beyond time, into eternity. Earthly time will cease to be with our death, and especially with the death of the entire world, beyond which its transfiguration will take place. Time will cease to be when the Lord comes. To Him, to His coming to us, we are led by time. Time is woven into a knot at this point. It is that truly new thing for us - the new life, the new heaven and earth - for which we yearn. ... And our New Year prayer contains, like the beating of the Christian heart, the Christian call and beckoning: "Even so, come Lord Jesus." (REV. 22:20)

As trite as this sounds, since we are today about 365 days closer to that reality than our last New Year's celebration, it would seem that we need to think deeply about our lives in time and the direction of our lives. For we do not have an endless store of time. Only God knows the "amount" allotted to each and every one of us. It is a gift that we must not squander. An immediate challenge that the New Year will pose for us is expressed it one of the special petitions found in the Prayer Service for the New Year that we offer up to God on an annual basis:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will implant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

Spending some of our "precious time" engaged in this battle would seem to be a good use of the gift of time granted to us by God.

Fr. Steven